Birthday Boots

This is just a photo taken on Black Rock nature reserve – one of our favourite Mendip walks – it’s only a quarry and the rock doesn’t look exactly black – but there …. we still love it.

Yesterday was my birthday (please don’t ask) and since we’ve reached the age where surprises are usually unwelcome ones, we normally choose something for ourselves – an extravagance perhaps. Outside the flat there’s a line of walking boots of varying vintage which are only thrown away when they actually fall apart. The line is vaguely sorted in order from decent for a good walk – down to gardening only, however my most recent pair (5 years old) suddenly died on me a couple of weeks ago. The fabric part started leaking and the soles were worn to the point where, as my knees were thrown out of kilter I looked as if I’ve got rickets. They fitted like slippers, but not in a good way. The next in line were a pair of old Scarpas which are amazingly comfortable still, but again very with very worn soles. The soles in any case have always been lethal. I discovered this on Tryfan with my son when our scramble to the top of what always feels like a rather bad tempered mountain was made more exciting still when my boots refused to connect safely with the rock, and so since then I’ve only ever used them on less rocky routes. It turns out that the soles in question developed quite a reputation for turning wet rock into a skating rink. Don’t misunderstand, they’re lovely boots and I trekked 25 miles a day for several weeks, carrying a big pack on the Camino, crossing the Aubrac hills in south east France. Actually that day on Tryfan we were about to go up the final scramble when we met a man hovering there as if unable to make up his mind whether to carry on. “We’ll go up with you” we said cheerfully, and we’d barely climbed ten feet when he said lugubriously “Three of my friend died on here”.

It’s fun buying boots – the research, the reviews and finding a supplier; but in many ways it’s more like buying a car because it’s impossible not to be thinking about where you’d like to go in them …. let the daydreaming begin! What I really needed was a pair as comfortable as the Scarpas but with vibram soles that could grip wet rock a bit better. Then the thought occurred to me that I might lash out on a pair of full leather boots; a proper extravagance – well, twenty quid more anyway. Boots are like bikes. In fact they’re like any conceivable bit of kit (especially men’s kit); they elicit strong loyalties and a multitude of unevidenced opinions. So I sought advice from anyone who would talk to me about it and then ignored it because I didn’t really care what anyone else thought, I wanted a pair of posh leather trekking boots so there!

I phoned the shop ahead to reserve a pair of the exact size, make and model and made an appointment assuming I would have the exclusive attention of someone who had a PhD in boot fitting. It wasn’t quite like that because the poor man was on his own and no-one had told any of the customers coming through the door that there was an appointment system in place. So it didn’t take long to find out, between his long absences, that they didn’t have my size in store. He tried desperately to reassure me that the measurements were coming out at size nine (which they had in stock) and it seemed there was nothing I could say that would communicate to him the very simple fact that I’d been wearing Meindl boots for years – ever since the Scarpas – and I’d always been ten and a half. In the end we agreed that he would get some boots in for me to try as long as I paid a (large) deposit. We went to the till and then a kind of beatific light dawned across his face – “You didn’t make an appointment did you?” “Yes I did” I replied. “Oh ………….” he said, as the ground refused to swallow him up. “These must be yours then …”. he said as he peeled the label with my name and the time of the appointment away from the box sitting next to the till.

It turned out that I’d got the size right after all and after that the fitting went well and we left the shop with my birthday present under my arm. That night I fabricated a ludicrous excuse to wear them into town to buy milk from a marvellous new vending machine, put there by a local farm. Then we did a couple of our usual 5 mile walks with me, rather self consciously, wearing the absurdly new looking footwear. They were lovely – they’re definitely seven league boots and so I’m free to dream of ever longer walks.

Tryfan – the old monster

Madame doesn’t know this yet but in matters of mountains and walks I’ve found it’s best to keep the details a bit vague until we’ve already set off. We have had a few barneys as a result, and on one occasion I thought I was going to have to call mountain rescue because I’d forgotten that the walk I’d planned past Tryfan took us past a precipitous waterfall which was way beyond her pain threshold. In the end it was me who slipped and fell, so it was a relief when my son told me that his partner had slipped and fallen in exactly the same place. No harm was done in either case and we walked off the mountain without having to call for help. On another occasion I forgot to mention that there was a much easier approach to Pen y Fan via Cribyn than the path up from Bryn Teg ridge. My word she was angry – so much that she went up it at a sprint. I could hardly keep up.

A wintry Cribyn and Pen y Fan photographed from our kayak on the Monmouth and Brecon Canal

These last few days I’ve sorted out my rucksacks, dug the super lightweight cooker out of a cupboard along with the titanium dixie and wondered – not for the first time – whether we might use the Hilleberg tent a few more times. All these are honourable graduates of the school of desire, and I’m firmly resisting the thought that I ought to know better at my age. Dreaming is the wellspring of a fulfilled life, and as long as you don’t waste a moment lusting after impossible dreams (like being tall and athletic in my case) there’s no reason to shut your life down voluntarily. Being old, short and tough as old boots is a lot better than giving up, sitting in an armchair and looking at the wall. Anyway, enough of this introspection because I can already smell the mountain air after three seasons in lockdown. During these dog days, when the daylight seems so fugitive, the allotment is sulking, rain soaked and surrounded by dead wet leaves under a leaden sky, and so daydreaming about new adventures is a tempting relief. Neither of us is the least heroic and the world is full of more adventurous adventurers than us, but we’re less than 100 miles from some of the most spectacular places for walking, birdwatching and botanising. We’ve got the Mendip Hills, Exmoor, Dartmoor and the Brecon Beacons all within easy reach.

Later, after all three of our children rang and and asked how my birthday was going, Madame pointed out that I’d described it entirely in food – breakfast, lunch and supper. I think that must be a family trait because we’re all either cooks or professional chefs. My birthday leaves just eleven days until the solstice – oh joy!